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Ankara and Washington have work to do to maintain their relationship

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) prior to their meeting in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020 [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) shakes hand with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) prior to their meeting in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020 [Fatih Aktaş - Anadolu Agency]

According to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, relations with America are above party politics and individuals, and are protected by alliances and strategic agreements. This does not match what Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a few months ago in response to Joe Biden's comment during his election campaign that he will support the Turkish opposition to take on and defeat President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan. "The days of ordering Turkey around are over," tweeted Kalin. It looks as if Cavusoglu has forgotten that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not visit Ankara on his recent Middle East tour to discuss more than one regional issue that directly concerns Turkey.

Just as Ankara prepares for the new stage in its relations with Washington, President-elect Biden will inevitably prepare for a difficult era of Turkish-American relations. Ankara has had contact with Biden for decades, and each knows a lot about the other in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Their differences are, for the most part, over the issues of the Kurds, Armenians, Cyprus, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, Israel and Russia. The Turks apparently disappointed Biden in recent years because they did not take his advice or warnings. NATO is what remains of the strategic cooperation between Ankara and Washington, and Biden may administer the coup de grâce by announcing that Turkey's S-400 missile defence deal with Russia ends this partnership.

The new US president will not find it easy to overcome America's differences with Turkey, even if he wants to do so. The number of contentious issues is growing, as is regional divergence between the two. Biden will not abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the east of the River Euphrates, and will reject Turkish military operations in Syria. That will be a fundamental step towards the larger Kurdish project, even if we overlook the fact that Biden himself is the godfather of the Syrian federation or confederation proposal. He is a supporter of the plans to divide Iraq into three parts which regional powers have blocked so far.

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Moreover, the President-elect will not abandon the strong US relations with the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean that have issues with Ankara. Nor will he accept Turkey's rapprochement with Russia at the expense of Turkish relations with the West, given Ankara's S-400 deal with Moscow. The withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Turkey's Incirlik air base will probably go ahead; Biden will not hesitate to find an alternative base in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It is no secret that Biden is sticking with the Israeli, Armenian and Greek lobbies in Washington, and is likely to give them whatever they ask for. He also has many friends in the "parallel entity" groups for which the US establishment provides cover in the face of Ankara's extradition demands, such as coup leaders and terrorists alleged to have plotted against Turkey. As he has already made clear, Biden won't hesitate to support the Turkish opposition.

Among the new president's priorities will be Israel's security and the weakening of Iran and Turkey at the behest of regional capitals close to Washington. Donald Trump was planning to build a Turkish-Arab-Israeli bloc to confront Iran, but failed to do so, although he succeeded in restricting Iran's regional expansion. Biden may do the same with Turkey, in favour of the same regional parties whose interests meet in the face of the perceived Turkish and Iranian "threat". The answer lies with Russia and its willingness to respond to Washington's targeting of its rapprochement with Ankara.

It is a fact that direct dialogue between Trump and Erdogan helped to prevent total estrangement between Ankara and Washington. However, Biden is an institutional man who believes that it is imperative to activate the role of Congress and respect what it says, unlike Trump.

While the incumbent US President did not give the Turkish president everything he asked for with regard to Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and the parallel entities, and he understands the necessities of the Russian S-400 deal, Erdogan is at risk of losing the opportunity to contact the Oval Office whenever he wants to offer his opinion and convince his US counterpart on major issues. The telephone line between Erdogan and Biden will not be as open as it was with Trump.

It is almost certain the a Democrat president and Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will cause a bigger crisis for Turkish-American relations if Biden carries out his threat and appoints a team hostile towards Ankara. The most important player in the White House after Biden will be the National Security Advisor, and the frontrunner for this post is Tony Blinken, Biden's friend and colleague since the Clinton and Obama administrations. Blinken knows Turkey better than anyone in Washington, especially the strong and weak points on both sides, which is essential when discussing bilateral and regional issues. He was definitely involved in the escalatory messages to Erdogan and Ankara last December.

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The problem for Turkey, then, will not just be Biden, but also his staff. Important figures who Trump dismissed, including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, former Director of the FBI James Comey, and the former US Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman are cooperating with Biden today and are waiting eagerly for a new confrontation. Indeed, there are many local and regional figures and forces waiting for Biden's arrival in order to settle their scores with Erdogan's Justice and Development Party government.

The Turkish file was not mentioned in the televised debates between Trump and Biden, but the messages of the Democratic candidate were clear and cannot be ignored in Turkey. He will not make a great effort to protect the strategic Turkish-American relationship, if Ankara does not want that to happen, and there is talk that imposing sanctions on Turkey is among Biden's declared priorities if Ankara does not back down from its positions and policies that are inconsistent with what Washington says and wants.

Biden may work towards the restoration of America's relations with many countries, but Turkey may not be one of them. Cooperation and letting bygones be bygones is not likely to feature in the next phase of Turkish-American relations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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